Magical thinking includes believing in things like telepathy, ESP, fortune telling, and astrology. A couple recent studies revealed that mindfulness meditators scored higher on a “magical thinking” inventory than non-meditators. For more details on this research, see the previous post.
I propose that mindfulness practice creates a mindset that lets in magical thinking. Mindfulness ideology is anti-intellectual and discourages critical thought, except in the service of promoting mindfulness. Mindfulness is about maintaining distance from thoughts, not thinking them. As Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it:
“learning to observe what your mind is up to from moment to moment, how to watch your thoughts and how to let go of them without getting caught up and driven by them… Kabat-Zinn (2013), p. 954*
And when you observe a thought:
“…let it be here and let it go, without being drawn into it, without investing it with a power it doesn’t have, without losing yourself in the process? This is the way to cultivate mindfulness.” pp. 2294-2301
Problem is, critical thinking requires a willingness to be "caught up" in thought streams, to follow them without knowing whether the journey will be fruitful or not. When we sense something but can't articulate it, we may need to mentally flail without immediate issue or clarity to eventually arrive at an insight or solution. We need to be responsive to thoughts, let them lead, even if that means reaching dead ends more often than not. Such is the price of progress. The mindfulness directive to observe and gently redirect attention from thoughts to the present nips their progression in the bud. Sure, it may also reduce stress but stress reduction is not the be-all/end-all.
Of course we don't always want to surrender to the machinations of the mind. Being in the moment is a good thing. As is critical thinking, which is a process that can take us away from the moment. So be it.
Mindfulness is also about being "non-judgmental" and "non-reactive", the better to deplete the emotion that fuels thoughts, the easier to let go. Besides undermining critical thinking, a non-judgmental attitude doesn't make for effective BS detection. There is such a thing as being too open.
And while mindfulness advocates welcome the new “science of mindfulness”, their appreciation of science seems to have more to do with its use-value than its truth-value, i.e., using science to promote the cause of mindfulness, not appreciating science as a way to get closer to the truth of things. Hence we hear a lot about studies supporting the benefits of mindfulness, little about the inadequacies of these studies or about research that showed no significant benefit or no additional benefit when compared to well-matched control groups.
Besides, to the committed practitioner, scientific support is nice but inessential, because mindfulness practice provides its own “compelling logic [and] empirical validity” (p. 280).
Not even physics, that most rigorous of the physical sciences, has come to terms with new discoveries showing that, at the deepest and most fundamental level, the natural world is neither describable nor understandable. Our basic notions that things are what they are, that they are where they are, and that one set of conditions always causes the same thing to happen, had to be completely revised…” p. 4323
And part of the way things are is connected and interconnected:
“One scientific view, known as the Gaia hypothesis, is that the earth as a whole behaves as one single self-regulating living organism…This hypothesis affirms a view based on strong scientific evidence and reasoning that was, in essence, also held by all traditional cultures and peoples, a world in which life, including human life, is interconnected and interdependent – and that interconnectedness and interdependence extends to the very earth itself.” p. 3448
The downside of living in such an interconnected universe is vulnerability. Between the psychological harm** subtly inflicted years ago by our nonmindful parents, to lack of inner harmony and connection with others, to the myriad of “toxins” in our environment, the world is a dangerous place. Our only hope is to change our mode of being, ala mindfulness.
Putting it all together, then, there are various threads within the mindfulness worldview that increase susceptibility to magical thinking:
- Disparaging thoughts and redirecting attention away from thoughts undermines critical thinking by interrupting mental processes
- Cultivating a non-judgmental attitude creates a non-discriminating openness to pseudoscientific and unfalsifiable absurdities, like the Gaia hypothesis.
- Asserting the most fundamental level of reality is not accessible to scientific notions of causality or understanding opens the door to uncritical acceptance of the unfalsifiable.
- Stressing the innerconnectivity and interdependence of all things can easily lead to the idea that things at a distance influence each other.
* All subsequent quotes are also from Kabat-Zinn 2013, using Kindle page numbers.
** Per Kabat-Zinn, this harm may have lethal consequences later in life: “…a lack of closeness to one’s parents during childhood was associated with a risk of cancer… We might speculate that this has something to do with the extreme importance of early experience s of connectedness to later health as an adult.” 4937
Jon Kabat-Zinn (2013) Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, Kindle Version, Revised Edition; Bantam Books, New York